Version tested: PlayStation 2
Capcom may consider itself the mainstay of the survival-horror genre, but with Silent Hill 2 Konami have created a game that defecates on the Resident Evil series and positively floors Dino Crisis. Nothing else really matters. I like to think of Silent Hill 2 as a gift-wrapped message for the darling buds of Capcom. It's nice to look at, it's easy to control and it's built around a gripping narrative. There are still some niggles, but if I were Shinji Mikami I'd be somewhat concerned. The game puts you in the position of widower James Sunderland, whose wife Mary has been dead three years. James is extremely depressed and without a friend in the world, so when he receives a letter from his dead wife pleading for him to meet her in the town of Silent Hill, he jumps into the car and steps on the gas. A letter from beyond the grave is never a good omen though, and before long after arriving at Silent Hill James is in trouble, and none of Silent Hill's peculiar occupants can offer much assistance. Quite the opposite, in fact… James' adventures are occasionally depicted from those dramatic fixed camera angles which run throughout the genre, but for the most part you can pick your own camera angle using L2. The camera is always a certain distance away from James, but you can rotate it while holding down L2 if you use the right analogue stick. This means it's almost impossible to get yourself in a position where the camera can't be moved to solve your problem. Moreover, the camera never clips into the wall or any of the objects in the game, and there are scant few occasions in the game when you find yourself set upon in an area with a fixed camera angle.
Although this reduces the number of problems caused by camera positioning, there are still some inevitable problems. Weird looking zombies hang from the ceiling in places, and aiming at these is still nigh on impossible, just as it was with the aerial assailants in the last few Resident Evil games. Whether you're being chomped on by a zombie or swooping alongside James as he jogs gracefully from danger, the sheer beauty of the game cannot escape your attention. Silent Hill is filled with dense fog, used to great cinematic effect (rather than simply to mask the draw distance) to create a feeling of claustrophobia. I used to live in a room that wasn't much more than a cupboard, and if I wasn't slightly claustrophobic after a year of that, I certainly was after five minutes of Silent Hill 2. It's the way the fog moves that really frightens the player. Every scene has a cloudy presence, but it's always a few inches from James' fingertips. Beyond the fog (which is something you will never be…) Konami have achieved something Capcom have never managed; they have made the game look dirty. That's right, every location, from the lowliest cupboard to the grandest dining room is absolutely filthy. Clouds of dust, bits of dirt and grime have collected everywhere, and at times it's as if somebody opened all the windows and then emptied a cesspit over the town during a hurricane. That, along with the consistent blood red theme of much of the game's interior artwork helps to create an eerie and totally believable ghost town.
Like their surroundings, the various creatures that inhabit the town of Silent Hill are drawn with the devil's own pen. From roaches to psychotic nurses the animation and excessive detail is delightful. The fingers move separately; arms flex; necks twist; hair blows in the wind, and that's just the bad guys. James himself is thoroughly realistic, moving with the composure and poise of the average human male and flexing all the right muscles as he does it. The game also features some computer-generated movie sequences, which complement the action nicely. The quality of the game's visuals means that Konami are in the strange position of being able to surreptitiously splice in-game and CG footage without much obvious difference. For me, that's showboating to Capcom, and it works a treat. The reason you keep playing Silent Hill 2 won't be the visuals though, nor the excellent use of camera angles and the complete lack of Resident Evil-style clipping, script inadequacy and boredom. No, the reason I kept on through the game's 15 hours of gameplay was that it consistently managed to scare me, and I loved it. Konami have done everything within their power to frighten you. From footsteps you didn't make on the wet grass to the sound of breaking glass somewhere not a million miles from your pale, exposed face, the game is packed with titbits that may or may not lead to a greater danger. It invites paranoia at every turn.
If you aren't scared by the supposed threat of a beast stalking you through the shadows, the very real and obvious threat of a new and heinous monster literally within 20 feet of your person with nothing but fog to hide you will probably fill in the blanks. Like the first game, you wind up with this little radio, which blasts static that grows in volume as monsters approach. What a brilliant idea - a devastating and probably blood-curdlingly hideous monster within a few feet and you haven't a clue which direction it's coming from. The control system matches the spooky atmosphere and fetching visuals by remaining practically anonymous. You're never fighting to get it to do something, and it becomes second nature before long. If James wants to find and examine a particular object, when it comes within a certain distance he turns his head to greet it automatically, and his piercing flashlight singles it out making the process of scouring a mansion altogether a lot easier. The excellent gameplay mechanics of Silent Hill 2 mean that the player can spend far more time occupying themselves with the game itself, which comprises a reasonable mixture of action, puzzle and adventure. There are some pretty bog standard puzzles and action sequences from time to time, but the breadth of activities and Konami's ability to reinvigorate proceedings at a moment's notice mean that time flies when you play Silent Hill 2, and by the end of the game I had barely had my fill.
Silent Hill 2 is a very complete survival-horror adventure, with a good control system, some good camera work and an excellent narrative. The fact that I spent 15 hours playing the game without once glancing at my stopwatch (except to stop and start, obviously) is indicative enough to me of a fantastic game. Resident Evil has become tired and overdone, and Capcom haven't really scared anybody with it in a year or so. Silent Hill 2 is a much better game than any in the RE series, and it solves a number of problems that have dogged the survival-horror genre forever. Who cares if it's Christmas, you should be out killing something.
9 / 10